Category Archives: News

Is It OK for Non-Italians to Open Italian Restaurants?

Because I’ve written a book that debunks myths about Italian food in America and also discusses the sociopolitical issues surrounding Italian immigration to the United States, I’ve often thought about the term cultural appropriation as applied to Italian food in this country.

As of late, there is a push to open pizzerias selling “true” Neapolitan pizza, certified by an organization in Italy, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN). According to them, if you are not making this “true” pizza, you are not making pizza. The problem with this ideology is that the pizza that the 16 million+ Italian immigrants who left Italy 100 years ago made doesn’t qualify as “real” Italian pizza even though they and their descendants made pizza famous throughout the world. Yes, that’s right, the pizza made by the most famous pizzaiolo, Gennaro Lombardi of the first pizzeria in the United States, Lombardi’s, opened in 1905 in New York City does not count as “real” Italian pizza. Neither does Frank Pepe’s in New Haven, opened in 1925 by an immigrant from Naples. Mind you, some of the most popular pizzerias in Naples do not fall under the AVPN guidelines, like Da Michele. However, according to the AVPN, a pizzeria that follows their criteria but opened by a person of non-Italian heritage, is “real” Italian pizza. (The criteria include using certain types of ingredients and ovens, among other things. Ironically, tomato is one of the ingredients and it did not exist on pizza until after 1492. In fact, Frank Pepe’s famous white clam pizza, without tomato, would be closer to the original pizzas of Naples than “true” Neapolitan pizza with a tomato sauce, as the Neapolitans used to put small fish on the pizza dough.)

How is this applied in the “real” world?  I’ll demonstrate. Let’s say I’m Person X.  A non-Italian person is Person Y.

Person X–my great-grandparents, their daughter–my grandmother–and all of her siblings, all born-and-bred natives of Naples who immigrated to the United States because of the adverse conditions created by the Italian government in Italy in the last half of the 19th century to the early 20th century, made pizza and opened pizzerias in the United States, and then their granddaughter and daughter–my mother–and her husband, my father, made pizza in the United States. This is all MEANINGLESS, according to the current ideology and food media coming from Italy.

Person Y, who is not Italian at all, with no basis for understanding Italian culture and cuisine, takes a vacation to Italy, watches a pizzaiolo make pizza in Naples, looks out at the bay of Naples, drives down to the breathtaking view of the Amalfi Coast, comes back to the United States, follows the AVPN guidelines, opens a pizzeria selling “true” Neapolitan pizza.

Voila. The non-Italian is the “true” Italian, and what am I?

(In addition to pizza, there is also a push to re-brand Italian food in general to what is currently available in Italy today, essentially discrediting the food the immigrants brought here 100 years ago and made famous throughout the world.)

Maybe my point is better illustrated if I’m using a different cuisine as an example. I would not be so presumptuous as to travel to Japan and sample ramen at a few well-known ramen shops, come back to the United States and open a ramen shop. I might fall in love with ramen (which I have) and try to re-create it at home, which is perfectly acceptable. However, calling myself expert enough to open a restaurant and profit from it, I wouldn’t presume to do. However, that is exactly what many people are doing today with pizza, traveling to Naples for a week, hitting the most well-known pizzerias like Sorbillo or Di Matteo and claiming to know enough about pizza to bring it back to the United States as if it’s a unique discovery and not a part of a thousand-plus-year-old culture that the Italian immigrants brought here 100 years ago.

I wonder do these “Neapolitan tourists” know anything about the history of discrimination and marginalization of Italian Americans in the locales where they are opening their “true” Neapolitan pizzerias?

Who? Oh, yes, us, the Italian Americans. I know, I know, we are not a vocal group. You see, we cannot pronounce words and we are too busy in organized crime to read a book or defend ourselves. (I’m being sarcastic here.)

I know, I know, I should just eat a slice of “true” Neapolitan pizza cooked by John Doe and fugetaboutit.

But, I can’t do that. I can’t do that and the reason why is best expressed in this essay by Dakota Kim in Paste:  “We’re Having the Wrong Conversation About Food and Cultural Appropriation.”  I think she hits the nail on the head with the bolded words about the lack of real thought about the racial, ethnic and class issues involved in food production and consumption.  There is a privilege in taking a trip to another country (something many Americans cannot afford to do). Many Americans are immigrants who left their home country, not because they wanted to, but because conditions were so bad that they had to find a new home. Many are not immigrants but exiles. And many cannot go back to their home country even to visit. Historically, immigrant populations have not been treated well in the United States, and as each new group assimilated, it went through a period of discrimination, some more or less, some that still continues. These immigrant groups keep a part of their traditions alive with food through the generations. Food is an integral part of a person’s identity, and yes, that means ethnic identity. Can someone take a trip to Italy, for example, for a week or a month, and eat four, five, six, ten pizzas and know everything there is to know about making a pizza, everything there is to know about the Italian history and culture, about being Italian? And what if they open pizzerias in areas with a history of discrimination or marginalization of Italian Americans?  This leads me to the question that is the subject of this essay:  If you are not Italian, is it cultural appropriation for you to open an Italian restaurant?

As Kim mentions, well-known chefs take advantage of the American business model, and the power structure that exists that the elite have the money and therefore, the time to travel and the connections to invest in their business ventures and publicize their restaurants.

The danger of this, though, is that it can redefine the food and culture in the minds of the American people and can sometimes rewrite history, which is something I discuss in my book, Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People. Hence, why the media can get away with saying that (the derogatory term) “red-sauce” restaurants are not “authentic” Italian cuisine and only the cuisine of contemporary Italy is.

Part of me says, this is America, you should be able to open any kind of restaurant you want. If I want to open that ramen restaurant, I should be able to. If Person Y wants to open a pizzeria serving “true” Neapolitan pizza, bada bing. But the other part of me says, yes, this is cultural appropriation, and no, you shouldn’t open a restaurant if you don’t have a connection culturally to the food you are serving. While I say this, I do recognize that we live in the United States, and this is the land of the free, free market and free speech. Americans are free to open any kind of restaurant they want to, and I am free to criticize them. In the end, it is up to us as consumers, as individuals, to research the restaurants we frequent, to vote with our dollars, to be mindful of the food we eat and the cultures behind it.

–Dina Di Maio

***All writings and photographs are the intellectual property of me, unless I’ve noted otherwise, and can only be used with permission. If you are inspired by this blog, please use professional courtesy to note it.***

 

 

 

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My Book, Authentic Italian, Is Now Available

Authentic Italian

Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People

by Dina M. Di Maio

Available from Amazon.com

Pizza. Spaghetti and meatballs. Are these beloved foods Italian or American?

Italy declares pizza from Naples the only true pizza, but what about New York, New Haven, and Chicago pizza? The media says spaghetti and meatballs isn’t found in Italy, but it exists around the globe. Worldwide, people regard pizza and spaghetti and meatballs as Italian. Why? Because the Italian immigrants to the United States brought their foodways with them 100 years ago and created successful food-related businesses. But a new message is emerging–that the only real Italian food comes from the contemporary Italian mainland. However, this ideology negatively affects Italian Americans, who still face discrimination that pervades the culture–from movies and TV to religion, academia, the workplace, and every aspect of their existence.

In Authentic Italian, Italian-American food writer Dina M. Di Maio explores the history and food contributions of Italian immigrants in the United States and beyond. With thorough research and evidence, Di Maio proves the classic dishes like pizza and spaghetti and meatballs so beloved by the world are, indeed, Italian. Much more than a food history, Authentic Italian packs a sociopolitical punch and shows that the Italian-American people made Italian food what it is today. They and their food are real, true, and authentic Italian.

Columbus Day: Italian Americans vs. Native Americans?

I understand that Columbus Day is a controversial holiday to some. Saying that Columbus “discovered” America is denying the Native Americans who were already living on this land. But no one can argue that Columbus’s landing here precipitated events that led to the formation of the United States of America. And that is something to celebrate—the first country in the world founded on principles and ideas.

Columbus Day has been celebrated in the United States since at least the mid-1800s, when immigrants from Italy started arriving in the country, but it had been celebrated by the American people prior to Italian immigration. In later years, it became a source of pride for Italian immigrants and new Italian Americans born in the United States, a group that was historically discriminated against. It’s unfortunate that Columbus Day seems to be Italian Americans versus Native Americans, when these are two groups who historically suffered discrimination (and genocide). I can understand why Native Americans would not want to celebrate a day that led to the eventual taking of their land and the killing of their people. But I think maybe a bit of Italian history might help them understand the Italian side of things.

Many people have heard that Garibaldi united Italy in the 1860s, but what they don’t realize is that Italy didn’t want to be united. Southern Italy was a part of a different kingdom, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. After unification, Southern Italians rebelled. The government labeled these rebels as brigands to make it sound like they were a bunch of thieves, rather than the patriots they were. Even Benjamin Disraeli spoke of them as patriots. At this time, they were not just killing brigands, but any Southern Italian they could. Naples had been the third largest city after Paris and London, and soon it was raped of its resources and the funds reallocated to Northern Italy for economic improvements there. This is a revisionist history that until late, has been largely forgotten—and purposely so. The situation in Southern Italy became more and more devastating that through the years of the 1870s to the 1920s, more and more Italians left, many coming to the United States. Most of these immigrants were from Southern Italy. But, unfortunately, they left one country that didn’t want them for another that didn’t want them. They suffered much discrimination and prejudice in the United States. They were forced to worship in the basement of predominantly Irish Catholic churches. They were lynched in the South. Some Southern states banned them from living in their states in the early 1900s.

But Southern Italians were a hardy people and were fighters, much like Native Americans. They had cities in Southern Italy dating back 10,000 years. Matera, in the southern state of Basilicata, is one such ancient city, where The Passion of the Christ was filmed because of its sassi, or houses carved in stone. Some of the older tribes of Italians were the Lucanians of this area and also the Samnites and Sabines of South-Central Italy. The Samnites were great warriors with a developed civilization alongside the Roman one. They had three wars with the Romans, and eventually lost to them. The Romans knew they had a formidable enemy, so they committed a genocide of the Samnites. Many did survive because they were familiar with the interior mountains of Italy and could hide. Others blended in with Roman society (Pontius Pilate was one of them). There is a famous battle, the battle of the Caudine Forks in 321 BC, where they defeated the Romans. The people from this area are still proud of this battle against the Romans. It is near the village where my grandfather was born, and I am a Samnite. Now, that was in 321 BC—a long time ago and yet I still identify with these people and this battle. It is still a great source of pride for me. Because I know that the Romans didn’t kill us off—because I’m still here. And the Northern Italians didn’t kill us off in the 1800s—because I’m still here. And the prejudice and discrimination we endured—and continue to endure as an “Other”ized group in the United States didn’t and doesn’t dissuade us—we are still here.

And I am sure that is how the Native Americans feel, a sense of loss but a sense of pride for fighting. I can always go back to Italy, even though I am culturally American. The homeland where my family comes from still exists albeit in a different way since millions of its children came from Southern Italy to America. Native Americans don’t have a homeland. Their homeland is here, a completely different place that was historically unkind to them and treated them much like the Roman Empire treated the Samnites, a nuisance standing in the way of Roman domination. But the Native Americans proudly fought, a fact I and many people greatly admire.

As an Italian American, I hate that Columbus Day makes Native Americans feel less than or as an “Other”ized group because my people were made to feel like an “Other”ized group and that is one reason Columbus Day is a source of pride for Italian Americans. I grew up near the Lumbee tribe and I do recognize the Lumbees as an official tribe. I also saw “Other”ization of them firsthand and experienced “Other”ization myself. I am hoping with more insight into this lost Italian history—that is never really told to a wider audience than Italian American academics, maybe Native Americans will see that they have more in common with Italian Americans and that Columbus Day isn’t about the beginning of the end for them. Just like the Samnites and Southern Italians, they fought and they are still here. And we are all Americans in the United States, a country that we love and hate, hate for its painful history but love for its progressive laws.

–Dina Di Maio, Esq.

***All writings and photographs are the intellectual property of me, unless I’ve noted otherwise, and can only be used with permission. If you are inspired by this blog, please use professional courtesy to note it.***

How to Save Your Favorite NYC Restaurants & Food Businesses

This month, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation blog posted an article, The Restaurant Toolbox: Menu Options for Saving Important Food Establishments.  The article outlines actions we can take as consumers to help support our locally owned restaurants and food businesses.  The #1 thing we can do is to think about where we eat and shop.  Make an effort to patronize businesses deeply rooted in the community.  By doing this, we help ensure their survival in an ever-increasing-rent climate.

The article also outlines what businesses can do to help themselves, as well as what policy  makers can do.  It’s very well written with great suggestions.

Russia Bans US Food and EU Fruit

Russia bans food from the United States and fruit from the European Union.  According to the article, Russia is the second largest importer of U.S. poultry.  Maybe Russia doesn’t want its chicken processed in China either?  While this sounds like a political move, I can’t say I blame Russia, as I don’t want most food that is mass-produced in the United States because of what’s in it.

Yelp Is the Voice of the People

I didn’t read all of this Eater piece on Andrew Zimmern and Yelp, but I’m giving my two cents anyway.  I think a lot of people in the culinary industry want to discredit Yelp because Yelp is having an impact on their businesses.  People use Yelp and a negative review can sway future (and former) customers.  Do I think there are fake reviews on Yelp?  Absolutely.  I think restaurants/businesses post fake positive reviews (and maybe even pay people to do it for them) and I think disgruntled former employees or anyone with a beef against someone post fake negative reviews.  However, I think Yelp is a great resource, and I must admit, I check it before I go anywhere new.  And guess what Andrew Zimmern?  I’m a lawyer–passed the NY bar on my first try, so no moron here.

In this age, we are inundated with advertising information.  And a lot of advertising is based on psychological studies of human behavior like where to place items in a store, what colors appeal to you etc etc.  What I like about Yelp is that Yelp posters have no agenda.  Sure, individual posters may have an agenda, but like I said before, most posters on Yelp just want to convey “Hey, this place is great, you should try it” or “I had a bad experience here, you should think twice.”  Yelp is just a virtual word of mouth.  And because it’s a virtual word of mouth, it can reach so many people so quickly, and therefore, has power, and that scares anyone with a business.

Like I wrote before, I think it is a good thing, as it gives businesses an opportunity to create a better customer experience.  Sure, there are crazy people out there.  We’ve all been there when someone goes ballistic that they asked for a burger with cheese and got a plain burger.  But we are not so stupid that we can’t tell the crazies in the virtual world from the crazies in real life.  I think being a part of Yelp Elite really helps lend credibility to a poster because the Yelp Elite are real people who attend events, so someone knows they are real.

And honestly, if anything, I think more businesses benefit from Yelp than not.  There are always Yelp events sponsored by businesses, and a lot of people attend these events, giving these businesses a lot of exposure they wouldn’t have had otherwise.  Businesses shouldn’t just support Yelp when it is to their advantage because in doing so, they risk taking away the voice of their customers–you know, the people who pay their salary.

Bill Brady: Food Art

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Professional food photographer Bill Brady helps businesses sell a product or a lifestyle by creating a certain mood through his photos.  He writes, “Crumbs wants the public to crave their Crumnuts, T-Fal displays their perfect and dependable cookware, and the Quinoa Board must express that ancient grains equal a healthy lifestyle.”

With his new food art exhibition at the Martin Vogel Photography Gallery, he gets to do the opposite.  “Rather than objectifying food as an object of beauty and desire,” he writes, “food becomes integral in the play of color, light and composition. The result is abstract, sometimes beautiful, other times shocking.”

He adds, “Reducing foodstuff to its lowest common denominator, it becomes the raw material of expression rather than the end product.  Just as a traditional painter uses oils, watercolors and acrylics, I use condiments, sauces and food. Common objects like candy or frozen peas become an elevated mode of expression.”
To see Candyland (pictured above) and other pieces in the collection, visit Food Art from March 6 through April 29 at the Martin Vogel Photography Gallery at the Port Washington Public Library.  The opening reception is Saturday, March 8th from 2 to 4 p.m.  Bill will be lecturing on Monday evening, April 7th at 7:30 p.m.